North Adams mayor envisions bringing Mohawk Theater back to life
In his annual State of the City address Thursday, Mayor Thomas Bernard announced that he plans to issue a request for proposals to breathe new life into the city-owned theater, which opened in 1938 but has sat mostly unused for more than a quarter-century, despite substantial efforts to renovate it.
"As with past requests for proposals, this will be an attempt to understand what ideas are out there, to determine whether any are viable enough to recommend for sale, and above all else, to refresh a conversation about the theater that has grown stale and repetitive," Bernard said.
Bernard, entering his second year in office, used Thursday's speech to reflect on the city's progress under his administration and chart the course ahead. The address initially was scheduled to be held Tuesday, but several inches of snow fell on North Adams and forced Bernard to reschedule.
Instead, Bernard's speech drew a crowd of residents in the City Council chambers on a clear but chilly night. Along with the majority of the North Adams City Council and a host of city leaders, attendees at the speech included new Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer and state Rep. John Barrett III.
In explaining his decision to move forward with soliciting proposals for the Mohawk — it first requires that the City Council declare that the theater serves no municipal purpose — Bernard credited the work of local residents who recently have reignited discussions regarding the theater's future.
Last June, a group of volunteers held a community forum to contemplate the site's future.
"That grassroots effort proved to me that the future of the Mohawk does not need to rest in the city's hands alone. Government can help to support development efforts, but we also have the opportunity to explore how the private sector will write the next chapter for the Mohawk," Bernard said.
The Mohawk Theater has been in various stages of development since its closure in 1991. It previously held a major event in 2012 — a Johnny Cash tribute concert. The volunteers behind TEDx North Adams had worked feverishly to ready the space for their 2018 event, but ultimately moved the lecture series to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art because of logistical concerns.
In reaction to Bernard's announcement, City Council President Keith Bona said it's "really at the early stages," and indicated that councilors likely would seek assurances that the building's historical significance be considered in any proposal.
"I think the council just has to make sure it's not an open RFP where someone comes in with the bid and they can turn it into whatever they want," Bona said.
Councilor Benjamin Lamb welcomed Bernard's proposal to "test the waters," and said the theater has the "opportunity to be a major anchor in our downtown."
"Putting it out there and seeing what the real, tangible interest is is a huge step for this community," Lamb said. "It's one of those things that's been talked about for literally a generation."
Bernard also used Thursday's address to announce a new public listening series, starting at 9 a.m. Saturday at Empire Cafe on Main Street.
"While I have heard your hopes and concerns, it's time to put into action a pledge I made last year to hold informal listening sessions throughout the city. Tonight, I am announcing that I will be holding these meetings on the first Saturday of every month through the spring," Bernard said.
Much of the mayor's second State of the City addressed the economic investment that had been made in North Adams, and the promise to work toward continuing that trend in 2019.
Bernard credited a number of developers with spurring economic growth in the city, including the Tourists hotel and Greylock Works. Bernard also praised David Moresi, whose Norad Mill has become a hub of small businesses on Roberts Drive since he purchased it in 2017.
"Whether you call it an innovation center, a business mall, or an entrepreneurial incubator, one thing is clear — David has found a formula for success," Bernard said
The mayor said he would continue to promote a "culture of development" in 2019.
"People are investing in North Adams. It is a place where they see potential and where they want to do business," Bernard said.
Continuing on the economic theme, Bernard said he will work to make it easier to do business in North Adams. That includes continuing the work to update the city's decades-old zoning regulations and taking advantage of two new Qualified Opportunity Zones in North Adams, which provide tax incentives to companies and organizations that make substantial investments in areas in need of growth.
Public safety has become a central focus of Bernard's administration, largely out of circumstance.
Late last year, North Adams Police Chief Michael Cozzaglio announced that he would retire after 32 years in the department. His impending departure has forced the city to embark on a search for his replacement, a hire that Bernard has said will be crucial.
Among the city's most pressing infrastructure needs is its public safety building on American Legion Drive. Thanks to its state legislators, the city was awarded $1.1 million in a state bond bill for siting and engineering of a new or renovated public safety building — but that funding has yet to be appropriated.
"The money would help, [but] its greatest benefit is as a spur to action. We don't need study money to start considering where we might locate a public safety complex. There aren't too many options that align both the need for physical space with ease of access for our first responders," Bernard said.
After withdrawing from the Civil Service system, the city also is embarking on hiring new police officers under its own for the first time. The process, overseen by an outside consultant, is expected to offer the department more flexibility in hiring, without sacrificing quality.
In addressing public safety, Bernard also paused to note how the city has confronted the opioid epidemic. The mayor joined a class action lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies "that aims to hold the drug manufacturers responsible for their role in this epidemic," Bernard said.
Adam Shanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-629-4517.
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